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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
New York Memorial Concert, 1957
Kirsten Flagstad (soprano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra / Martti Similä
London Symphony Orchestra / Øivin Fjeldstad
rec. live, Carnegie Hall, New York, 8 December 1957; Kingsway Hall, London, 10-15 February 1958
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC518 [2 CDs: 128:36]

This Sibelius twofer is a timely issue, since 20 September 2017 marked the 60th Memorial of the composer’s death in 1957. The memorial concert was given on 8 December, the date of his birth. The programme opens with the American and Finnish national anthems, though the track-list wrongly identifies the latter as Porilaisten marssi – the original Swedish title is Björneborgarnas marsch, which translates as “March of the Pori Regiment”. Since 1918 it is the honorary march of the Finnish Defence Forces. The only connection between the two pieces is that both have lyrics by Finnish national poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg. I have provided the correct information in the header.

From the very first bars of The Star Spangled Banner one realises that this is not going to be an historical recording in murky and dim sound. On the contrary the brass rings out triumphantly and brilliantly and when the strings further on are exposed on their own they are by all means thinner but fully acceptable and the woodwind section is also reproduced realistically.

The fourth symphony may not be the most accessible of Sibelius’s seven completed works in the genre. More than one commentator has heard struggle and despair, even forebodings of the war which was only a few years ahead – the work was completed in 1911 – others have found it bleak and forbidding. Elmer Diktonius, Finnish poet, composer and critic, even named it “The Bark Bread Symphony”, referring to the famine of the previous century, when the people had to mix bark into the bread to survive. Sibelius himself, who had met several of his contemporaries in Europe, including Schönberg and Stravinsky, said in a letter: “It stands as a protest against present-day music. It has absolutely nothing of the circus about it." The slow and dark opening movement certainly has a mourning quality which is redeemed by the lively, taut and rhythmically alert second movement. But in the largo we return to the gloomy mood of the opening. There is forward thrust in the finale and Similä captures the ebb and flow of the dramatic music. Overall this is an utterly idiomatic reading and the playing of the 90 members of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra is excellent.

Jussi Björling frequently sang Sibelius songs in his recital programmes and Sibelius regarded his readings as congenial. After a concert in Helsinki in 1951 Björling was even invited to the home of the ageing composer and there he received a signed photo with a dedication: “To the genius, the great singer Jussi Björling”. The choice of Björling as soloist at this memorial concert was, in other words, natural – and the tenor was in magnificent form. The recording is also magnificently clear and full and with Björling’s exceptionally distinct enunciation every word leaps out of the speakers with stunning brilliance. There exist multiple recordings of all five songs with Björling – Demanten på marssnön was the encore and is introduced by the singer – and the interpretations naturally differ, especially when in some cases they were recorded almost 20 years apart. But there is a vividness here, thanks to the excellent recording that makes me feel a very intimate closeness with Björling. This particular recording of the five songs has been issued before (Bluebell ABCD 050), which I didn’t have at hand and consequently can’t judge the possible difference in sound quality.

After the interval – here on CD 2 – the concert is rounded off with the popular early En saga (1892), a colourful, melodious work which here is given a vital, springy reading while at the same time the poetic moments are in no way underplayed. The ubiquitous, patriotic Finlandia, in a powerful reading, brings the concert to a jubilant end.

But this is not the end of this pair of discs. Finlandia is followed by the classic recital Kirsten Flagstad recorded for Decca in London, only a couple of months after the memorial concert. The legendary Wagnerian was almost 63 at the time and officially retired, but producer John Culshaw tempted her to return to the record studios for a series of LP-recordings during her Indian summer, and here, with her compatriot Øivin Fjeldstad at the helm of the LSO, she is heard in 14 songs. Incidentally 5 of them were also sung by Jussi Björling during the memorial concert and interested readers are thus offered opportunities to make comparisons. It is indeed rewarding to have two of the greatest Scandinavian singers of all time on the same discs in partly the same repertoire. My review of the Decca reissue eight years ago may give a hint of my opinion. The stereo sound of the original Decca issue was always very good and comparing the Decca set with the present Pristine issue left the impression that they are identical. Whether more sophisticated equipment than mine can register some differences is an open question.

Anyway, the Pristine set is something to contemplate by both Sibelius lovers and admirers of great singing.

Göran Forsling

CD 1
Stafford SMITH (1750 – 1836)
1. The Star Spangled Banner [1:34]
Fredrik PACIUS (1809 – 1891)
2. Vårt land, Finland’s National Anthem [1:28]
Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63 [40:08]
Five Songs
7. Säv, säv, susa, Op. 36 No. 4 [3:10]
8. Flickan kom, Op. 37 No. 5 [4:17]
9. Var det en dröm? Op. 37 No. 4 [2:58]
10. Svarta rosor, Op. 36 No. 1 [3:13]
11. Demanten på marssnön, Op. 36 No. 6 [4:34]
Jussi Björling (tenor)
CD 2
1. En saga, Op. 9 [18:19]
2. Finlandia, Op. 26 No. 7 [9:34]
Fourteen Songs
3. Om kvällen (Illalle) (orch. Jalas), Op. 17 No. 6 [1:36]
4. Var det en dröm? (orch. Jalas), Op. 37 No. 4 [2:20]
5. Höstkväll, Op. 38 No. 1 [5:28]
6. Demanten på marssnön, Op. 36 No. 6 [2:20]
7. Flickan kom (orch. Pingoud), Op. 37 No. 5 [3:09]
8. Arioso, Op. 3 [4:05]
9. Våren flyktar hastigt, Op. 13 No. 4 [1:39]
10. Se’n har jag ej frågat mera, Op. 17 No. 1 [2:24]
11. Men min fågel märks dock icke, Op. 36 No. 2 [2:46]
12. På verandan vid havet, Op. 38 No. 2 [3:09]
13. Den första kyssen, (orch. Pingoud), Op. 37 No. 1 [2:05]
14. Svarta rosor, (orch. Pingoud), Op. 36 No. 1 [2:01]
15. Säv, säv, susa (orch. Hellmann), Op. 36 No. 4 [2:40]
16. Kom nu hit, Död (orch. Boruttau), Op. 60 No. 1 [3:39]
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Martti Similä (CD 1, CD 2 tr. 1 & 2);
London Symphony Orchestra/Øivin Fjeldstad (CD 2 tr. 3-16)

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